City Lights Bookstore – San Francisco Bohemian Central

There's no other place in San Francisco that embodies the history of the Beat Generation better than City Lights Bookstore. In the heart of North Beach, it's been an important literary meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals since 1953. Famous for its eclectic selection of books, its commitment to free intellectual thought, and its legendary founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is one of the most important independent bookstores in America.

For over half a century City Lights Bookstore has supported the right to read, think, write, and debate. In 2001, City Lights was named an official landmark for its seminal role in the literary and cultural development of the city. In case you're wondering, the bookstore is named after the Charlie Chaplin movie. Let's push the rewind button and learn the fascinating story behind this historic bookstore.


About City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore

City Lights is the head, heart, and soul of literary San Francisco. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the USA — and that was a radical move in 1953 — stocking classics of modern literature and politics. In 1956, City Lights published Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl and it became the lightning rod for a new generation of poets. This rare combination of bookstore and publishing house continues to stock the best books in every category.

City Lights has an active, ongoing series of readings and events, at least one or two each week. Check their online calendar for a current list of events. City Lights offers a delightfully quirky array of book sections — Beat Literature & History; Art, Architecture & Print Culture; Dada & Surrealism; City Lights Publications; Gender Studies; Poetry, Poetry Criticism & Poetry, and Biography, to mention just some of them.

Pedagogies of Resistance

One of our favorite City Lights sections is also the newest. Pedagogies Of Resistance was created in the wake of the November 2016 election. It's designed to act as an educational course in revolutionary thinking. The chosen books highlight the motivations, ideas, successes, and failures that define past and present revolutionary movements. The developing list consists of nearly 100 books, and can be found at the bookstore.


City Lights Foundation

City Lights Books continue to demonstrate its commitment to promoting the diversity of voices and ideas that are represented in books. The goal of City Lights Foundation, a non-profit cultural and educational foundation is to advance deep literacy, and to encourage education, competence, and knowledge.

The City Lights Foundation believes that writers and poets can change the way society thinks through their creative work. So, the foundation wants to foster independent thinking and intellectual courage, with the intention of contributing to the creation of a progressive social vision. This effort can only help all of us.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has not only written poetry, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays, he's also the co-founder of City Lights Bookstore as well as the foundation and the publishing house. Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919, the son of Italian immigrants. His was a sad childhood — his father died before he was born,and his mother was committed to a mental hospital. He spent some of his childhood in France living with his aunt and was at one time placed in an orphanage while his aunt looked for work.

Ferlinghetti served in World War II as a ship's commander in the US Navy and towards the end of the war, visited Nagasaki, just six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped. It was a haunting experience that ignited Ferlinghetti's interest in politics and pacifism.

Using the GI Bill, he received a Master's degree from Columbia University and then a Doctorate from the Sorbonne, in Paris. He settled in San Francisco, where he taught French, painted, and wrote art criticism. In 1953, he founded City Lights Bookstore with Peter D. Martin. (Peter left the business shortly thereafter.) Only two years later Ferlinghetti launched the City Lights publishing house.


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Ginsberg at City Lights

When City Lights published Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems, it was a big deal. Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges and the trial drew national attention to the Beat movement. The good news is that Ferlinghetti was supported by leading literary and academic figures, and he was acquitted. The landmark First Amendment case established a precedent for the publication of controversial works.

Not just a poet, Ferlinghetti is also a painter. His paintings have been shown at galleries around the world. He has also translated the Pier Paolo Pasolin's Poemi Romani, from Italian to English and published by City Lights Books. Ferlinghetti's own A Coney Island of the Mind is claimed to be he most popular poetry book in the USA and has been translated into nine languages. He is also the author of poetry, plays, fiction, art criticism, and essays.

City Lights Bookstore Resources

  • 261 Columbus Avenue
  • Open daily 10 AM to midnight
  • Website

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